LIKE MEMBERS OF Congress and top administration officials, including the president, federal judges must file annual financial disclosure reports. But unlike those other government officials, judges can seek to shield from public view some -- or even all -- of their financial information on the grounds that its disclosure would endanger them. In a study of this special exception, the Government Accountability Office found that fewer than 10 percent of judges sought such redactions. But the overwhelming majority -- 90 percent -- of the 661 requests made between 1999 and 2002 were granted, in whole or in part, according to the GAO. More troubling, in each of those years, 13 to 15 judges were able to have their entire financial disclosure forms blacked out.
The judges' exception, put in place in 1998, is set to expire next year. Before renewing it, Congress ought to take a close look at how it's working. Judges certainly face serious safety concerns, although many other government officials -- say, U.S. attorneys -- do as well and nonetheless still have to file public disclosure forms. The judges argue that even information that seems innocuous may provide clues to someone intent on causing harm. For example, almost half the redactions involved the source of the spouse's outside income, information that could reveal an unsecured location at which to find a judge or family member. A similar problem could be posed by having a vacation home listed among the judge's assets.
Still, it's difficult to imagine a circumstance that could justify redacting an entire disclosure form. How could revealing a judge's stock holdings pose a threat? It's not difficult, though, to see the harm caused by keeping such information secret. The public has a legitimate interest in making certain that public officials don't decide matters in which they have a financial interest. Anyone who thinks that judges would never do so should take a look at the prize-winning reporting by Joe Stephens, now at The Post, that demonstrated repeated instances of such behavior.
But the judiciary seems to suffer from an allergy to disclosure that other officials have learned to live with -- and that is perhaps the most disturbing revelation of the GAO report. Its rules serve to frustrate access to such information rather than to facilitate it. Where forms for other branches of government are easily and promptly available, the process for obtaining access to judges' forms is structured to dissuade.
First, judges are informed of the identity of anyone seeking a copy of their forms. But what litigant who suspects a conflict would want to risk angering the judge hearing the case? Second, where other officials' forms are available on request and often on the Internet, those asking for judges' disclosures often have to wait weeks for the information -- by which point it may no longer be relevant. The GAO found that in 2002, the median wait -- before the report was put in the mail -- was 73 days.
One sensible solution, proposed by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), would be to have judges post public recusal lists of companies and other financial holdings that, if involved in a particular case, would require them to step aside; these lists would supplement, not replace, the availability of disclosure forms. This mechanism strikes a reasonable balance between judges' legitimate security concerns and the public's right to meaningful access. That balance now tilts too far in the former direction.